Greenland, the starting-point for the voyages to North America

[…]Written sources and archaeological finds combine to show that the two settlement-areas in Greenland, the one at the very southernmost tip of South-West Greenland — referred to in the medieval period as the Eastern Settlement — and that in the area around Nuuk (Godthňb) — the Western Settlement — were colonised about the year 1000.

The Western Settlement is assumed to have been deserted about the middle of the 14th century and the Eastern Settlement about a century later.

The history of the Vikings in Greenland thus extends over a period of almost 500 years — corresponding to the period from Columbus's discovery of America until today. Just think for a moment of all that has happened in the world since the time of Columbus!

The five centuries during which the Viking settlements were inhabited must presumably also have been eventful but apart from a few major political events, which were recorded either in Iceland or in Norway, we know very little today about the course of events in the Viking community in Greenland or about the circumstances which finally led to the desertion of the settlements.

The voyages of the Greenland Vikings to the American continent fall into three separate periods. The Vinland voyages in the 11th century, the voyages north along the west coast of Greenland after about 1200-1250, and — finally — a single voyage of Greenlanders to Mark-land in the middle of the 14th century. In the old accounts the voyages appear as isolated events without any obvious relationship with each other but in spite of the scarcity of our information about them, the voyages to the north and the west are probably among the events in the history of the Vikings about which most is known. By studying these voyages it is possible to discern a pattern of development, however fragmentary, for the society whose existence was a prerequisite for the voyages.

Greenland in the 11th century

The colonisation of Greenland and the Vinland voyages are described in two great Icelandic sagas [[italics]]Grœnlendinga saga[[/]] and [[italics]]Eiriks saga rau­a[[/]], both of which are thought to have been composed in the 13th century. The sagas begin by describing how prominent settlers in Iceland, among them Erik the Red, occupied land in the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement. Then there is a description of the discovery by second generation Greenlanders of Vinland, Helluland and Markland, and the unsuccessful attempts to colonize Vinland.

The geographical location of Vinland, Helluland and Markland has given rise to much speculation for generations but since the localisation of the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, the discussion has more or less died down. It is now the general view that the lands described are to be found in the region around Newfoundland and Labrador.

A reading of the Icelandic sagas tends to leave one with the impression that all the first settlers in Greenland were proud and wealthy farmers; equals who divided the best land between themselves in a democratic manner. It may well have been like this but the results of archaeological excavations in recent years — concentrated around Ameralla fiord in the southern part of the Western Settlement — suggest that the first settlers must have included less privileged individuals, who may even have been dependent upon the great men and forced to be satisfied with the — from an agricultural point of view — less attractive settlement sites.

At the head of Ameralla fiord, where the Vikings' Sandnes is assumed to have stood on the broad and fertile moraine plain at Kilaarsarfik, there would probably have been sufficient pasture and hayfields to feed a large herd of cattle, consisting mainly of cows, with smaller flocks of sheep and goats. It was here that the mightiest farmer established himself. Less wealthy men would have had to make do with sites such as the farm at Niaquusat on the northern side of Ameralla. Squeezed in between the steep mountain behind and two promontories, the farm is encircled by a smallish area of fields. There would have been little possibility for harvesting hay for winter fodder and hence for keeping cattle. There would only have been goats and sheep here. Taking the limited area and the topography into consideration, it would seem that the farm was established with a view to a combinatory economy in which hunting on the fiord, primarily for seals, must have played a not insignificant role. The inhabitants of the inland farms cannot have been of particularly high social standing either. Here the hunting of reindeer must have been of great importance for the upkeep of the household but in addition it seems likely that the inland plains would have been suitable for keeping sheep and goats. However that may be, finds of animal bones, which however are to be dated towards the end of the Western Settlement, show that sheep and goats were in the majority.

All the Western Settlement sites that have been studied have been dated by C14 to the period around 1000 and the archaeological investigations have yielded a picture of a community with a fixed social structure and in which the aim had been from the very beginning the exploitation of all available ecological niches so that a community could survive in this — seen in relation to a Scandinavian farming culture — marginal region.

The basis for the Scandinavian settlement in Greenland was first and foremost the ability of the land to yield food to feed the population but it may well have been decisive for the Vikings' settlement here that such valuable commodities as walrus-ivory and — perhaps — narwhal tusk — were within grasp. From the walrus it was also possible to make hide-ropes, which were much sought after because of their great strength. Ohthere from northernmost Norway, whose wealth was based on trade in walrus-ivory and furs, revealed how highly these commodities were valued in Europe in the Viking period (Lund et al. 1983). With trade commodities such as these, the Greenlanders would be able to obtain both wealth and respect, and be in a position to guarantee the vital trading connections with Scandinavia.

It is still not possible, however, to prove where the Vikings hunted outside their settlement areas in the settlement period. The walrus and the narwhal live to the north of the Viking settlement areas and there is only a single reference in the brief history of Norway known as Historia Norvegiae, dating from the end of the 12th century, which suggests that the Vikings, before the composition of this work, had travelled to the north of Greenland (Salvesen 1969).[…]

It is not clear why the Vikings undertook the voyages to Vinland. These would seem to have taken place at a time when the Viking settlements in Greenland were still in the process of being established and it seems likely that the voyages to Vinland mark a stage in this phase of development, during which the possibilities offered by the surrounding areas were being thoroughly investigated.


The voyages of the Vikings to North America are the history of early voyages of discovery and of voyages for hunting and, possibly, trading.

The Vikings are assumed to have been dependent from the very beginning on all the available ecological niches offered by Greenland and there are many indications that they stayed put in Greenland. Vinland, Markland and Helluland were "discovered" but obviously not drawn into the ecological system of the Vikings. The cultural preconditions and the natural resources in Greenland were in tune with each other. The original settlement in Greenland had itself depended on the attainment of a reasonable balance between culture and nature. This balance, however, was very fine and the system vulnerable.

Even minor changes in the infrastructure could create problems. Mention has been made here of the imposition of taxes by crown and church in a period when a deterioration in the climate would seem to have reduced the possibilities for survival for a farming society in Greenland. Mention has also been made of a possible interruption in the regular communications with Scandinavia resulting in a shortage of basic necessities such as iron and timber.

Increasing tax demands presuppose an increasing surplus production and this could only be achieved by the Vikings either by expanding the area under exploitation or, where this was impossible, by an intensification of exploitation of the resources that already formed part of their economic system. Voyages northwards to Thule and/or Arctic Canada are to be looked upon as an expression of the second alternative. By drawing the Eskimos into a trading network, supplies of walrus products for sale to Europe could be greatly increased. A voyage to Markland in 1347 can be seen as an attempt to expand the area under exploitation.

Whether the Vikings were successful in establishing a lasting trading network with the Eskimos in Canada and Greenland is still uncertain and there is as yet no certain proof that they succeeded in substituting for Norwegian timber wood that they fetched themselves from Markland. The very fact that the Viking settlements in Greenland were deserted in the course of the 15th century, however, must be taken as an indication that they did not finally succeed in establishing a reasonable balance between culture and nature in Greenland.


Lund, Niels (et al.): Ottar og Wulfstan. To rejsebeskrivelser fra vikingetiden. Vikingeskibshallen I Roskilde 1983.

Salvesen, Astrid: Norges Historie. Historen om de gamle norske kongerne. Olso 1969.

Source: Jette Arneborg, "Greenland, the starting-point for the voyages to North America" in Viking Voyages to North America, Birthe L. Clausen (Denmark: Kannike Tryk A/S, 1993), 13-16,20.

Return to parent page